The Clockwork Universe

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In a war torn world of airships where the Emperor has lost his grip on his empire and his family, one man tries to escape an unchanging world and a man from another time tries to escape with his life A man known by the pseudonym Janus hides behind stand-ins – men expendable at the pull of a trigger. Rejected twice by the Society of New Alchemists and since his wife’s murder, Janus plans to confront the Emperor to obtain the final piece, a diamond, for his latest invention: a machine that will allow him to escape the world that refuses to embrace technology, and him. In a world of decaying loyalties, the New Alchemists are fighting for industrialization and progress while The Coalition, headed by Emperor Eldon Leander, wants to stop all new technology in its tracks. Stumbling through a painted door on the side of a rundown factory in our world, University professor Jason Calvert, finds himself trapped in a world of airships, energy guns and horse-drawn carriages. Instead of finding a way back home to get revenge on an old rival, an incident involving a toy airship lands Jason in prison. Janus struggles to obtain what he needs to escape a world stuck in the dark ages. The Emperor struggles to gain control of himself, his relationship with his daughter and his grip on the Empire, and Jason struggles to fight for his life. The clock is ticking.

Fantasy / Scifi
Caitlin McColl
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

The true division of humanity is between those who live in light and those who live in darkness.~ Victor Hugo

2011, South East Sector, United American Empire

Janus didn’t have to hold the gun to the man’s temple. He’d held his share of them in the past, but people knew he meant business even without. So now it was one of his stand-ins who currently held the large, gleaming silver pistol.

The man with the gun to his temple was built like a boulder, stocky, with eyes like raisins stuck too deeply into dough; his large, pasty face looked pig like with a slightly upturned nose. Tears streamed down his cheeks and mucus ran from his nose. Janus couldn’t help laughing at the sight; he could almost smell the fear.

Of all the men to break down sniveling and crying like a hysterical woman who’d dropped her best handkerchief in the mud Janus would not hae thought the stand-in currently on his knees to be one of those kind. But stand-ins who’d failed their tasks needed to be dealt with.

“Are you telling me you weren’t able to get the crystal, Mr. Hurtfield?”

“Y-, yes sir. I-, I mean no sir, I didn’t get it. I…must have got my time a little off because by the time I got there, the train was already moving.”

“And you couldn’t get on a moving train?” Janus sneered. “No, what am I saying? Of course you couldn’t,” he said, his gaze moving over the large man’s bulk.

“But I knew what car the package was supposed to be on. And the train was supposed to leave at two this morning, but it left early for some reason,” said Hurtfield, fat tears rolling down his large fat face.

“One of my men, he managed to get on the train,” continued Hurtfield wiping his nose across his sleeve. Janus arched an eyebrow. “Did he now?”

Hurtfield nodded again but his face fell. “Yes, but…”

“But?” Janus’ eyes narrowed. He caught his reflection in a large ornate mirror on the wall opposite, and his lips quirked at the sinister image reflected back at him. No wonder Hurtfield was frightened. The look Janus now gave would have any sane man quivering in their boots.

“But one of the train guards caught him sneaking through the woman’s car, sir, and he was thrown off,” Hurtfield lowered his eyes to the plush carpet he was kneeling on.

“You mean to tell me that instead of bringing me the Koh-I-Noor diamond, that it is on its way to…Toronto, I believe?” Janus glanced at the man who held the gun to Hurtfield’s head. The man, Grayson, inclined his head slightly in a nod.

“A museum, you said, Grayson?”

Another silent nod.

“I can still get it, Janus,” whimpered Hurtfield, lifting his eyes from the carpet and risking a glance.

Janus stepped back and leaned casually against an expanse of dark polished wood; a large oak writing desk behind which stood a wall full of books. To his left, three large windows looked out onto a vista of orange trees and palms. The sweet, tangy scent of citrus fruit wafted through on a breeze, ruffling one of the dark velvet curtains. Along the other stood a line of large metal men, all in various stages of construction or repair. On top of the large desk were scrolls, diagrams, and maps all haphazardly strewn across its surface.

He glanced out the tall floor-to-ceiling windows. Despite the encroaching darkness, an eerie light filtered through the darker gunmetal grey of the clouds, casting a strange glow on the wet and uneven paving stones of the street.

“You can, can you?” said Janus in a bored tone, picking at a fingernail. “And how do you aim to do that? Are horses suddenly flying?” He looked down his sharp nose at Hurtfield, shook his head slowly, and clucked his tongue. “Such a shame. I really thought I could trust you to do this one, simple little task for me.” Janus flicked a bit of fingernail towards the two men. “I know I can trust Mr. Grayson here.” Janus indicated towards the taller man with the dark eyes and dark skin. “At least I hope I can,” he said and his mouth twitched up at the corner in a sly smile. A look of fear flickered briefly across Grayson’s face.

“But I can be trusted, Janus. I assure you. Please,” whined Hurtfield. “Please just give me one more chance to prove it to you!” He wiped at another string of mucus trailing from his nose.

Janus felt a glow of pride at the reaction he elicited from Hurtfield. He watched the man try to refrain from blubbering like a child and failed to suppress a grin. “How long have you worked for me now? Six months? I would think in that time you would realize that I don’t give second chances. You all know what you sign up for. There are no secrets of that nature here. One chance is all you get and you’ve used yours up, I’m afraid, Mr. Hurtfield.”

He flicked his hand dismissively towards the two men as he turned and moved behind the dark mahogany desk.

A shot rang out loudly, and Hurtfield fell to the floor with a loud, wet thud. Janus took his seat behind the desk cluttered with papers, turning on the wall lamp as he passed. “Get him out of here and off the rug before he gets any more blood on it.” He said to Grayson in a clipped tone. “I need to get the servants in to clean up the mess.”

Grayson wordlessly dragged Hurtfields’ lifeless hulk out of the room, the man’s feet scraping loudly against the tiled floors over the threshold of Janus’s study.

Janus shook his head and sighed. Turning his attention to the plans closest to him, he picked up a large white ostrich feather quill and dipped it in a small pot of black ink.

He’d just finished sketching a new weapon to attach onto his latest model of golem, the one that stood closest to his desk, shining brassily under the flickering gas light of the wall lamp. The hollow thing looked straight ahead with its two eyes; one telescopic and one magnifying.

A loud scuttling noise of something slipping around on the tiled floors of the foyer just outside of Janus’ study reached his ears, and eventually a small cat entered, glossy with a layer of black paint overtop its body. Its eyes were green orbs that glowed with an inner light. Silver claws, curved like scythes, scrabbled for purchase on the tiles and found none. It ran sideways into one of the large double doors that opened inwards to the study.

Janus groaned, rising from his desk to where the metal cat lay toppled in a heap. He picked it up, holding it and its serrated claws as far from him as he could. He flicked a small switch on its belly, which caused the claws to retract inside the metal paws and placed the cat back down on the carpet. “It seems like you need a bit more work.”

The cat began to walk slowly around the room, lifting its legs in an odd, jerky way. A faint whirring noise came from the creature as the small motors controlling its joints moved.

Janus sneered with derision. “Never a rat when you want one,” he said, picking the creature back up and walking from his office and down the large staircase that swept down both sides to the main lobby. He pushed open a small narrow door near the back of the marble floored main entrance, polished to a shine so that you could see your reflection in it.

A cloud of heat and steam assaulted him as he walked through the kitchen along one side of a large wide island filled with pots and pans of all shapes and sizes. The kitchen staff, who had been talking genially back and forth as they worked, fell silent as Janus passed, still holding the cat under his arm as if carrying a parcel for delivery. Janus didn’t even glance at the workers in the kitchen as he made his way to the far end of the long kitchen.

He pushed open another small door made of heavy metal and stepped out onto a neatly manicured lawn. It was early morning and a light but warm rain had begun to fall, bringing with it a thick warm fog, like a cloak. Janus gazed into the undergrowth that was also neatly manicured and finally spotted what he was looking for.

A small brown form shot from under a bush toward a nearby orange tree, its branches laden with large bright juicy oranges. The rat stopped when it reached a dry spot underneath the tree, its fur sticking out all over with dampness from the rain and fog. It began to clean itself with its small paws. “A test,” said Janus, placing the cat gently onto the grass in front of him, careful not to move too quickly. He kept his head close to the ground and the cat as it stayed crouched against the dewy grass.

“Go,” he whispered harshly and the cat sprung in the air, leaping soundlessly but for the small faint whirring of the servomotors in its joints. There was a single loud squeak as the cat pounced on the rat. The creature never had a moment to twitch a whisker. Janus laughed loudly and clapped his hands together.

“Excellent,” he said walking over to the cat that was trying to extricate its claws from the rats flesh, the small serrations getting stuck inside and making a mess of both rat and cat. Janus grabbed the torn carcass of the rat and ripped it from the cat’s claws, taking a clean white handkerchief from his vest pocket and wiping away the blood and guts that clung to the serrations.

“Grand job, kitty,” he said to the cat, resisting the urge to stroke it. It reminded him of the small animals he made when he was a child, hidden away in the barn on his family’s farm. “Come,” he said, snapping his fingers. At the sound, the mechanical cat turned and walked alongside him, right next to his legs, keeping in time with his steps.

“Fantastic!” Janus smiled widely, his eyes turning cat-like amber by the sun that was quickly burning away the morning fog. By the time Janus reached the kitchen side door again, however, the cat was a few paces behind him, and still slowing. The smooth rapid whirring had become a laboured grating and its legs moved stiffly. Janus picked the cat up again, flicking the small switch a second time to retract its claws.

He took out his spectacles from the same pocket as his handkerchief, which he had thrown into the bushes after wiping the blood from the cat’s claws, and put them on. Peering closely at the creature he saw small patches of brown rust had begun to already form around the metal nuts and bolts of the joints.

Janus growled loudly like a wild animal and his repressed rage came out in a scream. I have worked on it for so long. I thought that finally this time, this version… He shook his head in frustration and suppressed another scream. He threw the cat with all his might against the brick wall that was the exterior of the kitchen.

The creature exploded in a cloud of springs and motors, and hunks of metal flew through the air, even as far as the orange tree under which the rat sat. Janus didn’t duck or flinch. Not even when a sharp piece of metal flew up and hit his cheek, causing it to split open in a long, thin cut –so sharp that it took a few moments for the blood to begin to well up through the cut and run down his face into the stubble that began to form a closely cropped goatee.

He wiped a hand across his face, smearing the blood even more and cursing himself for using his good handkerchief to clean the cat’s claws. He took out a thin hard card filled with an array of holes and stuck it into a slot in the wall next to the door. The door swung open silently with a small snick as internal locking mechanisms moved backwards into the walls. He placed the card back into his trouser pocket and walked briskly back through the kitchen, not looking at the kitchen staff, and the staff returning the same courtesy.

He ran up the large wide steps of the staircase that curved along both walls of the lobby and up to the second floor where his study dominated. Instead of entering the study, he turned left down along a balcony and entered the first door he came to, which opened onto a large bathroom.

He grabbed a small crisp white towel that hung next to the basin and ran it under water from the faucet before dabbing his cheek, staining the white facecloth a bright red with fresh blood. He dabbed and rinsed, turning the running water into a red waterfall until the water ran clear again and the blood had stopped flowing for the moment. He pressed a small white button below a rectangular grate and said brusquely, “Mrs. Heath, could you come here a moment?”

Not more than thirty seconds later, a large portly woman entered the room. She was dressed in a white apron overtop a drab cream colored dress and sensible black shoes, her hands covered by small white gloves and her greying hair pinned back smartly with a large bejeweled hairclip in the shape of a dragon that was swallowing its own tail. She came quickly up behind Janus who was still examining himself closely in the large mirror.

Yes, Mr. Janus?” asked Mrs. Heath timidly.

Janus sighed loudly and gripped the basin until his knuckles turned white. “I have told you before Mrs. Heath, it is not Mr. Janus. Only Janus.”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir,” the woman said, lowering her gaze briefly.

“I need a bandage and some antiseptic for my wound,” he said.

“And would you like some opium concoction as well, sir? For the pain? It looks like it would smart awfully, sir.”

Janus shook his head. “No. No opium drink is necessary this time, Mrs. Heath. Not for something as minor as this. Just my pipe will do. Would you mind bringing it to me in my study? There’s a doll,” he said with a smile, patting her hand gently and turning on his heel, leaving her to get fresh bandages, bandage tape and antiseptic cleanser from the cupboard above the sink. He let his forced smile drop as he turned from her. The woman has been in my employ longer than anyone! She should know by now. He stalked towards his study. She’s so much like a part of the house itself, a fixture, worn and reliable, that I fear I’m too lenient with her at times. I can’t let it be known I treat her differently.

He settled back in the large leather armchair behind his desk, took his ostrich quill, and removed the solid metal nib, inserting a small thin plastic tube inside the shaft of the feather before replacing the silver nib and dipping it in ink. He thumbed a small trigger he had installed further up the plume and a stream of dark ink was drawn up through the nib and into the small transparent tube within the shaft, turning the opaque whiteness black.

He placed the pen to the paper in front of him, which was filled with sketches of man-like machines, and metal parts – disembodied, arms, legs, heads and trunks, as well as whole drawings, filled the page. As he added the finishing touches on a new type of energy powered pistol and annotated each new sketch, small drops of crimson fell onto the paper and blossomed, spreading into each other and merging like raindrops on a pane of glass.

“Mrs. Heath,” Janus yelled, holding his palm to his cheek. The woman came bustling into the room as quickly as her thick legs would carry her, holding a roll of bandages, tape and a brown bottle of liquid. “Here we go, sir, I’m sorry, sir,” she apologized, holding a square of cottony gauze to his weeping wound.

“What took you so long?” Janus demanded.

“I’m not sure, sir.” Mrs. Heath poured some foul smelling liquid onto another piece of gauze and held it briefly against the cut.

“No matter,” said Janus, dismissing her with a wave of his hand. “Leave these things,” he indicated the pile of medical supplies. “Oh and be a dear and clean up the mark on my carpet over there. I’m afraid Mr. Hurtfield had an unfortunate accident.”

Janus could see Mrs. Heath’s eyes widen slightly as she took in the large bloodstain on the carpet. She met his own cool gaze but wisely kept her mouth shut. He knew that she had been with him long enough to know that people who kept their mouths shut stayed alive. He thought that she rather quite liked being alive.

Janus pushed a button on the edge of his desk and spoke into a small metal grate within the desks smooth surface. “Grayson, please come here a moment.”

Almost instantly, the tall dark skinned man with the hawk-like nose and piercing eyes stood in the doorway. “You wanted to see me, sir?”

“Yes. I’ve heard that when the Koh-I-Noor is finished in its display at the museum in Toronto, it is going up for auction. Not myself of course, as you know, but someone that will be me. Try to get someone that looks as close to the last man who stood in for me as possible. Remind me, who was that again?”

“Jefferson, sir,” said Grayson in a disinterested tone. When Janus didn’t speak and continued to simply look at him, Grayson continued, “He was the man with the dark hair, with brown eyes who always wore clothes that were slightly too big for him. Sir,” he added quickly as an afterthought.

Janus looked thoughtful a moment and then his face darkened with a frown. “I don’t recall Jefferson-,” he began.

“He had a large scar down the left side of his face,” Grayson supplied.

“Ah, yes. I remember him now. Make this next man look as much like Jefferson as we can, if he is supposed to be me, and in case he runs into people that Jefferson met at this auction.”

Grayson stared at Janus, not sure exactly what he meant.

“Are you deaf, man?” He threw his hands in the air. “Make this new man into Jefferson’s doppelganger. Change his hair colour if necessary. And,” he said with a pregnant pause, “his face. Where is Jefferson? Has he been buried yet?”

“No sir, he is still in the morgue, I believe.”

“That is great news! Go and take a photograph of Jefferson’s face so that we know exactly where the scar on his face is and what it looked like. Try and find out what the cause of it was and use the same implement on my new stand-in.”

“Yes sir, right away, sir,” said Grayson, turning away to find the latest in line of pretenders.

“And bring the man here, whoever he is, once the changes are made. And the photograph of Jefferson too, so I can see the results.” Janus turned back to the sketch before him. He brought a hand to his face and lightly brushed the bandaged cut, fingers scraping across a shadow of stubble on his cheek.

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